Written by: Andrew Burrage
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For Air Traffic Management

Will 5G be a revolution that connects our world? For the world of Air Traffic Management (ATM), its application or impact is not at all obvious; the frequencies it will use offer tremendous bandwidth, but also very limited range. This limits its usefulness in the traditional Communication, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS) pillars of ATM.

However, 5G is not just designed for mobile phone use (Enhanced Mobile BroadBand eMBB), it also has a specific Internet of Things offering, massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC), as well as automotive offering, which includes 'baked in' positioning, independent of GNSS. 5G is enabled by directional antenna arrays that focus the signal on the user terminal, be it a smartphone or a drone receiver. This allows accurate measurement of time and direction of arrival at 5G access nodes (cell towers), in order to locate the receiver.

The drone opportunity

  • If one considers automated drone applications, perhaps in an urban environment, a cocktail of conditions emerge that make the 5G positioning offering quite compelling:
  • GNSS will be the primary navigation means, but urban environments challenge its performance.
  • Urban environments may demand higher integrity navigation than rural environments to meet safety cases (a rural drone may be able to land where it is if the navigation solution is lost).
  • Urban environments will have the most dense 5G networks, giving the best positioning performance (particularly accuracy and availability).
  • Although cheap Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) sensors are part of current drone technology, delivering the required safety performance through inertial navigation systems will likely be too costly.
  • Visual navigation techniques will not work in all weather conditions.
  • If the automotive industry makes use of 5G positioning, economies of scale should lead to a low cost for users.

The most immediate opportunity to exploit 5G benefits is as a secondary navigation solution for drones in urban environments. There are currently no standout use cases for 5G in traditional ATM applications. Nevertheless, since 5G provides its positioning offering as a 'bonus' without additional spectrum use, the spectral efficiency of 5G for positioning will be very high. We consider this in relation to today's ground-based navigation techniques in 'Modernising navigation infrastructure for traditional aviation – the questions to answer', one of our latest blogs which you can find on the Helios website.

In ATM, there is a CNS trend towards digitalisation, automation, connectivity, integration and increasing security - 5G offering combined communications and positioning is a perfect example of this.

So, while 5G may not immediately excite the ATM world, it could still have the potential to dramatically impact the way we navigate in future.

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